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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 March 2006, 13:45 GMT
Faith or folly - building the future
Gareth Gordon
By Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

The Housing Executive is widely regarded as one of the success stories from the early days of the Troubles - a body set up to address one of the major grievances of the civil rights movement, discrimination in the allocation of public housing.

The executive addressed discrimination in public housing
Now, in a very different era, the government has begun to wind it up - handing power back to the politicians.

"It is an act of faith in local government," said one senior source. Either that or an act of folly, others will no doubt think.

The move is no reflection on the job being done by the Housing Executive.

Not a single case of discrimination has been found against it in its 35 years.

Rather, it is more about an attempt to streamline administration, reduce bureaucracy and hand control of local affairs back to local politicians.

In this self-proclaimed "quango cull", the Housing Executive was an obvious target. It is regarded as the biggest quango of all.

Its annual budget of 600m accounts for more than half of the 1bn spent each year by such public bodies in Northern Ireland.

It will lose a sixth of that - and 300 of its 3,000 staff - in 2009 on the establishment of the seven so-called super councils being set up as part of the Review of Public Administration.

In his speech on Tuesday announcing the moves the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, said: "We believe that housing is essentially a local issue and, for that reason, we will consider the transfer of housing to local government at a future stage, once the new councils are in place, fully operational and bedded in."

That is not likely to be before 2011 at the earliest.

But even though the executive chairman released a statement saying: "The decision to retain the Housing Executive as the strategic housing authority is undoubtedly good news," its days are surely numbered if the steamlining of local government goes according to plan. In other words, unless the politicians get it wrong.

Mr Hain announced a streamlined administration
That will surely be a cause of concern for many who recognise the executive's role in eradicating discrimination in housing by taking decisions out of the political arena and into the hands of neutral professionals.

But officials point out that many more safeguards now exist than in May 1971 when the executive was set up.

More than anything, it fits the government's agenda of making our politicians more responsible by giving them more power.

They have even reneged on one of the most controversial sections of the RPA announced back in November.

They have not gone back on the controversial decision to cut the 26 councils to seven - a move opposed by all of the major parties bar Sinn Fein.

But each council will now have 60 councillors - not 50 - meaning the overall number will rise from the envisaged 350 to 420.

It may sweeten the pill for the political parties, though they will still feel like spitting it out.

But no longer will councils be able to nominate members to public bodies, as happens in one third of cases at present.

In future, all appointments will be made on merit. According to Mr Hain: "No-one should be appointed to any position solely because they hold a particular position in another organisation." Overall, the number of public bodies will fall from 154 to 75. The pain will mainly be felt by chief executives and senior officers.

Some bodies like the Driver and Vehicle Licensing agency will merge; A new Land and Property Agency will incorporate Valuation and Lands, Rate Collection, Land Registers and Ordnance Survey Agencies; a new Library Authority will be created with responsibility for all libraries across Northern Ireland.

Control is being handed back to local politicians

The Northern Ireland Housing Council, the Agricultural Wages Board and Enterprise Ulster will disappear.

"It is a significant clear-out, " one source said. "It has gone far further than I could ever have imagined."

But it won't have gone far enough for some.

The changes announced in November envisage an annual saving of around 200m.

The "quango cull" will realise much less - between 10m and 20m.

But officials say the point is not saving cash - but producing better, joined-up government.

Of course that will only really happen if the Assembly and Executive return any time soon. That is what Mr Hain would really have liked to announce.

The Review of Public Administration took almost four years. Restoration of devolution is proving more difficult.

NI housing body facing shake-up
21 Mar 06 |  Northern Ireland
Reaction to NI quango cull
21 Mar 06 |  Northern Ireland

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